Folklore of the United States

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The folklore of the United States, or American folklore, is the folk tradition which has evolved on the North American continent since Europeans arrived in the 16th century. While it contains much in the way of Native American tradition, it should not be confused with the actual tribal beliefs of any real band, nation or community of native people. American Folklore, rather, is that strange fusing of European ideals of "civilization" with a European obsession with the "exotic" and the "savage." Any way you slice it, American Folklore is essentially about immigrants and their misunderstanding of each other, and of the new landscape they found themselves conquering, and of the people that had already been there when the first "white men" arrived.

Ultimately, American Folklore is a constant intertwining of the new and the old, the mechanical and the pastoral, the mundane and the miraculous, for no other purpose it seems than to fill up the space of a lazy afternoon.


Founding Myths

The founding of the United States is often translated as myth. A mythology is simply a story of some sort which has emotional, cultural, moral or ethical value to a nation. Taken broadly, then, American mythology can include any narrative which has contributed to the shaping of American values and belief systems. These narratives may be true and may be false; the veracity of the stories is not a determining factor. Three founding myths include: Christopher Columbus, the Pilgrims, and George Washington.

Christopher Columbus

Though Christopher Columbus did not participate in the founding of the American government, he has been interpreted as a "founder" of the American nation, in that it is descended from the European immigrants that would not have moved to the New World if Columbus had not found where it was. Indeed, one particularly pervasive myth is that Columbus discovered America, as it is far easier to heroify a man than a complex series of waves of immigrants from multiple conditions and walks of life. According to some stories, Columbus sailed across the Atlantic Ocean in order to prove that the world was round, because he expected to reach the Far East by sailing west. Like most mythological "founders" Columbus' mission is then rendered entirely noble, intellectual and rational. He helped dispel the inaccurate myths of his time, and, so, it is concluded, the nation he founded must be a nation of intellect and logic. Washington Irving is the first citation for this myth.


The holiday of Thanksgiving is said to have begun with the Pilgrims in 1619. They had come to America to escape religious persecution, but then nearly starved to death due to the unfamiliar land. Some friendly Native Americans (including Squanto) helped the Pilgrims survive through the first winter. The perseverance of the Pilgrims is celebrated during the annual Thanksgiving festival. As a myth, this story relates to the founding of the culture. The Pilgrims' dedication to their cause in spite of the hardships renders the foundation of the country, and therefore the country itself, seem stronger and more resilient. It is also a fertility festival, similar in some ways to other harvest-time celebrations in other cultures, celebrating the nourishment that comes from the earth. It was also said that the Pilgrims were the first colony in the New World, but before that, there were some French and Spanish colonies, as well as other English colonies. Some English colonies in America that predated Plymouth Roch include Roanoke settlement, which was later overtaken by or integrated with Native American tribes, and the Jamestown Settlement, which was successful and predated the Pilgrims' settlement by 20 years.

George Washington

George Washington is often said to be the "founder" of the United States. Since his death, Washington has been mythologized, with many anecdotes and stories about his life told, in general, to present the founder of the modern American nation as a just and wise cultural hero. For example, it is said that Washington, as a young child, chopped down his father's cherry tree. His angry father confronted the young Washington, who proclaimed "I can not tell a lie" and admitted to the transgression, thus illuminating his honesty. Parson Mason Locke Weems is the first citation of the myth, in his 1850 book, The Life of George Washington: With Curious Anecdotes, Equally Honorable to Himself and Exemplary to His Young Countrymen. Samuel Clemens (Mark Twain) is also known to have spread the story while lecturing, personalizing it by adding "I have a higher and greater standard of principle. Washington could not lie. I can lie but I won't." Stories of national mythological value often have similar themes - that the founder of the nation, Deucalion, George Washington, Abraham - was a wise, virtuous and brave man.

Tall men and their tall tales

Mostly mythic

Mostly real

And some women

Native Americans

Archetypes and icons

Animals and creatures

Literature and the arts


Contemporary folklore

Songs and games

See also

External Links


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